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Paralympic medalist shares mental health journey

Lauren MacGill

Canadian sledge hockey player Kevin Rempel spoke about his journey on May 8 as part of Morden's Mental Health Week. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)

Canadian sledge hockey player Kevin Rempel spoke about his journey on May 8 as part of Morden's Mental Health Week. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)

MORDEN - 

He won gold for Canada at the 2013 World Championships, and helped bring home a bronze at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

But life hasn’t always been easy going for Canadian sledge hockey player Kevin Rempel, who came to speak as part of Morden’s Mental Health Week on May 8.

Rempel’s dream was to be a freestyle motocross rider. “I would have no fear making a 70 foot jump hanging off the back of my bike,” he said.

During one of his jumps, Rempel ignored the less than ideal conditions (strong winds, high stress, crooked ramps) and hit the ramp. On the first jump of the day, not even attempting a trick, Rempel had to decide 75 feet in the air whether to stay on the bike and dive into the ground head first or jump off and hopefully only break both his legs.

Unfortunately, Rempel landed wrong and the impact broke his back, pelvis and ribs and instantly paralyzed him. “I was fortunate that in the crash I didn’t sever my spinal cord so I was deemed an incomplete paraplegic,” he said. “Surgery realigned it, but with all the bruising and swelling around the area there was no movement and they said I would likely never walk again. If I did, I would have braces on my legs for the rest of my life.”

Rempel’s recovery was slow at first, only able to move a single two after six weeks of effort, but by the end of a year he was able to walk and even ride again. It seemed like the perfect comeback story, but while Rempel was learning to walk again, his father was dealing with his own paralysis four years before. “He and I were out deer hunting building a tree stand when a branch broke,” Rempel said. “I saw my dad fall two storeys to the ground right in front of my own eyes.”

Rempel’s dad’s spine was completely severed, leaving him a complete paraplegic less than a year from retirement.

“My dad did not have any chance of getting better,” Rempel said. “In that experience he kept saying the same three things: ‘the branch shouldn’t have broken,’ ‘it’s not my fault’ and ‘life’s not fair.’ He took on a very cynical attitude about the situation.”

Rempel’s dad turned to gambling to cope. His attitude, compounded with depression, drove his wife away and seven weeks later he took his own life.

“How many times can you keep getting knocked down and picking yourself up before enough is enough?” Rempel said. “It’s like that proverb ‘Fall down 7 times, get up 8.’ If you fall down 93 times, you get up 94. That has to literally become your attitude in life because these punches that blindside us in life are going to keep coming. It’s not going to stop.”

Rempel said about a year after his father’s death, he found himself contemplating suicide. “In that moment, my exact thoughts were, ‘This will not be the ending to my story,’” he said. “I am not going out this way. That was the beginning of one of my very first and most important hero moments in my life.”

Rempel said focusing on these ‘hero moments’ can keep you going in life.

“Hero moments are those silent, lonely moments when you talk to yourself when no one else is looking,” he said. “When you’re sad and depressed and don’t know what to do and feel like giving up, those are the moments that matter the most in life. The things that we say in those moments are going to help determine both your attitude and the destination you arrive at.”

Rempel went on to play sledge hockey, eventually making it to the Canadian national sledge hockey team and has won two medals.

“We’re equal out there, that’s the best part about it,” Rempel said. “If you get in the sled as an able-bodied person, you have no advantage over anyone else. It’s a great equalizer.”

Rempel also spoke about being the “hero of your own movie” and taking action on moments in your life to move forward. “A hero doesn’t need to be an athlete or professional figure,” Rempel said. “It can be a family member, your neighbour, your best friend, your sibling. At the end of the day we’re all trying to achieve something great in our lives in one way or another.”

Rempel outlined three steps that help keep him on track and allow him to be the hero in his own movie. The first is to accept responsibility. “The example of my dad is a very raw, real example to see him going through life suffering as he did,” he said. “It’s so easy to take on a victim mentality when things aren’t going your way. We want to blame other people, we want to say that it’s the circumstances. How many times in our lives are we looking to other people or things for excuses that are just unconsciously blaming people for our circumstances?”

Rempel said the best way to get control back is to develop your self-awareness so you can decided how to react to situations instead of blaming outside influences.

The second step is to take things one step at a time.

“[During recovery] I had six weeks with no results,” Rempel said. “Then one toe wiggled, and I wiggled one more. Every one of these major tasks in my life have been achieved by simple baby steps.”

“We can easily get so overwhelmed with wanting to achieve something great,” he added. “How can you break those steps down? If we pause and reflect, now it doesn’t feel like ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it.’ Break these things down into small, achievable steps.”

Finally, the last step is to never give up.

“There have been so many opportunities where I wanted to give up,” Rempel said. “Where I felt like there was every reason to and nobody would blame me if I did. But when I look back on those experiences I had, one of the things I would say to myself is ‘Look how far you’ve come.’”

“Yes, things might not be that good right now, they might not look good for a little bit longer, but you’re still here,” he added. “You’re alive. You still have opportunity. You have friends and family that love you. There’s no reason to quit now.”

Rempel said one of his favourite motivation speakers said, “You’re already in pain. Get a reward for it.”

“You’re already suffering, why not make that worth something?” Rempel said. “Why would you want to quit now? This isn’t the end of your story. The final chapter hasn’t been written yet.”